Political and military background
While the international media concentrates on the fast-moving events in Iraq, the war in Syria continues, though in the long run it will be deeply affected by what is happening in Iraq.
Details within Syria are sketchy and on-the-ground news thin, but it seems the battle for Qalamoun and Homs has halted ISIS from enlarging their territory south to the border of Lebanon. At present, ISIS groups are dominating at least two governorates in the northeastern part of the country (Raqqa and Deir Ezzor) as well as parts to the north of Aleppo and near Hassake.
The conflict in Syria has become an intensely complex affair, with overlapping political, religious, sectarian, ethnic and tribal narratives. The coalition against ISIS — led by the United States — may create more chaos should it succeed in defeating the Islamic militants. With the absence of a reliable, moderate opposition, and the refusal of the international community to cooperate with the Assad regime, the future of Syria remains unclear, especially as violence will likely continue for an unknown period of time. Both sides in the conflict receive considerable levels of support from foreign states, organizations and individuals.
According to a recently published study by Charles Lister for the Brookings Institute, the military landscape in Syria can be summarized as follows:
The anti-government insurgency currently involves between 100,000 and 120,000 fighters — roughly 7,000 to 10,000 of whom are non-Syrian nationals — divided among a thousand distinct armed units.
Government forces — principally the Syrian Arab Army — have encouraged and adapted to the war’s sectarian overtones, primarily deploying Shia and Alawi units in front-line operations alongside increasingly professionalized paramilitaries and Shia militias composed largely of foreign fighters, such as Hezbollah.
Prior to the outbreak of the revolution in Syria, the SAA could deploy 295,000 men. As of this past April, the SAA had incurred at least 35,601 fatalities. When combined with a reasonable ratio of three wounded personnel for every soldier killed and approximately 50,000 defections, this suggests the SAA presently commands roughly 125,000 men. In order to fill the gap, the Syrian army is relying more and more on the government-initiated and state-backed NDF, which consists of civilian volunteers trained by Hezbollah and Iran. The NDF now constitutes as many as 100,000 personnel.
The conflict in Syria contains countless fronts and dozens, if not hundreds, of localized theaters of battle. Taken together, neither the opposition nor the Assad regime, the Kurds nor the jihadist groups can be said to be “winning.” While one side may make gains in one area, the other invariably secures victory in another.
The opposition’s gains in the south, combined with a recent insurgent offensive in northern Latakia and small but notable gains around Aleppo city and in the Idlib and Hama governorates, underline the continued capacity of rebel fighters to impose costs on the government. At the same time, though, more significant government gains in the strategically important Qalamoun region bordering Lebanon have helped secure the main route north of Damascus toward Hama and Aleppo, as well as more importantly, into the Alawi heartlands of Tartous and Latakia. This puts the government in a comfortable position compared to 12-18 months ago, and has served to consolidate a sense of stalemate in Syria for the immediate term.
Smuggling and criminal networks have been dramatically empowered, further increasing the likelihood of weapons proliferation, the consolidation of pre-existing transnational jihadist networks, and the unprecedented rate of foreign fighter recruitment.
The rise of what is effectively warlords’ means that a post-conflict Syria will likely be riddled by crime, which would directly impact chances for state recovery and revitalization. The extraordinary levels of destruction, particularly in residential areas but also in terms of key state infrastructure, will require significant amounts of immediate foreign aid and investment for recovery after the conflict. A recent economic study concluded that should the conflict in Syria end in 2014, reconstructing the country would require $165 billion (equivalent to a combined 18 Syrian annual budgets) and would take between 15 to 25 years.
Additionally, an end to fighting along government-opposition lines would not mean the end of fighting in Syria. With over 1,000 insurgent units active across the country, not to mention a plethora of pro-government militias and extremist Sunni jihadist, a smooth post-conflict political transition is close to impossible. Moreover, the long-running regional Kurdish issue may well become more pronounced with time.
Conflict in Syria, in one form or another, will continue for a long time ? potentially for more than a decade. The government, the opposition nor any other interested party maintains the capacity (in terms of manpower or military hardware) to win an outright victory. As such, a political solution to the conflict appears to be the only possible hope for peace.
Humanitarian and Economic Difficulties
An estimated 9 million of Syria’s 25 million people have fled their homes since the fighting began, according to U.N. figures; two-thirds have sought refuge in neighboring countries. Of the 2.5 million displaced people in Syria, the United Nations estimates that 242,000 live in “besieged areas,” where less than 10 percent have not received any kind of outside assistance.
Per a recent report filed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 2.53 million Syrians are registered as refugees now in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. However, the exact number exceeds that especially as many Syrian refugees in Lebanon (mainly Christians) are not registering their names due to security concerns. The death toll in the three-year Syrian conflict has risen to about 162,000.
Syria’s humanitarian conditions are currently at their worst level. The inability to provide basic services is resulting in disastrous health conditions. Attacks on the power plants has led to frequent electricity blackouts, fresh water supply and exacerbated the fuel shortage, resulting in an outbreak of diseases among the people who have resorted to drinking untreated water from rivers or wells that might be contaminated due to the almost complete breakdown of the sewage and the waste systems in many regions. To make matters worse, these risks of infection coincide with the collapse of the health system which was considered very good in Syria before the war erupted.
A recent report from the World Health Organization stated that 60 percent of Syrian hospitals have either been damaged or completely destroyed. Large numbers of doctors have fled the country and the local production of medicines has collapsed (up to 70 percent) since many pharmaceutical plants have been substantially damaged. Prior to the start of the conflict in March 2011, 90 percent of medicines in Syria were produced inside the country.
Malnourishment is of real concern. A recent U.N. report states that by the end of 2014 there will be an estimate of 14 million Syrians (three quarters of the population) in need of food. Although the United Nations is feeding more than 3.8 million people in Syria, those most in need are not being reached because of the complicated dynamics of the battlefield.
U.N. officials say they are especially alarmed at the reports of a growing number of deaths from the Palestinian camp of Yarmouk, just a few miles from the heart of Damascus. 48 people have died in the camp since November 2013 and the main cause of their death is malnutrition and other causes related to the lack of food and medicine, including anaemia and diabetes.
Despite the ravaged economy, most analysts believe the regime can survive for at least another year at current levels of spending, and perhaps even longer. U.S. and European Union bans on oil imports, which went into effect last year, are estimated to be costing Syria about $400 million a month. But this shortfall is being covered from the $17 billion in foreign currency reserves that the government had accumulated from the brief oil boom in the 1990’s and maintained until last year. The government has not said what currency reserves it has left, but the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit estimates it to be a little more than $4.5 billion.
CNEWA, especially through its staff in Beirut, has been engaged in Syria for decades. With its many contacts there, CNEWA uses the infrastructure of the local churches to help them provide emergency aid to needy and displaced families, those remaining in Syria and those in Lebanon as well. The programs implemented thus far have focused on vulnerable displaced Christian families who have not settled in refugee camps nor registered with UNHCR or the Red Crescent and therefore do not qualify for any aid provided either by the Arab countries or international donors.
CNEWA’s operational approach relies on partnering with church affiliated groups (parish priests, congregations, patriarchal representatives, bishops, lay societies and others) that are already active and efficient in collecting the necessary data, can implement the program (purchasing, packaging, distribution, etc.), and have the capacity to report back in a timely manner.
CNEWA has played a major role during the past few months to increase the efficiency of aid provided by encouraging different partners to coordinate their on the ground efforts. This has been successful in more than one region.
Since May 2012, CNEWA has disbursed U.S. $1,799,767 for more than 24,069 needy displaced Syrian families in addition to 24,234 children; the Christians of different denominations make up more than 80 percent of aid recipients.
In 2014, CNEWA has thus far disbursed U.S. $553,109 to assist around 6,324 Syrian displaced families inside Syria and Lebanon.
The emergency program in 2014 has moved away from the sole distribution of food — since the international public funded organizations were providing enough food packages for some of the displaced families — to cover the unmet needs as identified by our local partners. CNEWA has:
- Provided milk and diapers for newborn infants and also for children under 14 years old; this need was identified and prioritized by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in Homs, Tartous and Damascus, in addition to the Daughters of Charity of Besançon in Damascus. This program reached around 2,525 children in 4 locations.
- Provided daily breakfast and school kits for some 5,000 displaced students in 11 educational centers in the district of Homs, the Valley of Christians and Aleppo in coordination with the Jesuit Fathers in Homs, the Paulist Fathers in the Valley of Christians and the Maronite clergy in Aleppo.
- Distributed winter clothing and blankets to some 2,500 displaced families in the area of Damascus, Homs, Tartous and Latakia.
- Provided heating fuel for 400 families in Aleppo through coordination with the Society of St. Vincent DePaul in Aleppo.
- Distributed food packages for around 1,740 Christian families recently displaced to downtown Aleppo, through coordination with the Marist Fathers in Aleppo and the Maronite Archeparchy of Aleppo.
- Offered trauma healing and catechetical activities to around 900 children in 4 parishes (Maamoura, Qusayr, Hamra and Dmeineh) located in Qalamoun, recently recuperated by the government. This program was implemented through coordination with the Good Shepherd Sisters in Homs and the Greek Catholic Bishop Abdo Arbash of Homs.
- Supported two Christian Armenian schools in the village of Kessab to repair damages to allow 260 Armenian students to be reenrolled in their schools after the liberation of Kessab from the Islamic militants.
- Provided potable water tanks and food ratios to 514 Syrian families in Deir el Ahmar, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, through coordination with the Good Shepherd Sisters in the Bekaa.
- Provided programs offering psychological and spiritual support to mothers and children and 155 families as follows:
- 155 Assyrian — Syriac Orthodox and other Syriac Christian — families displaced from Syria and settled in the suburbs of Beirut.
- 350 Armenian Syrian mothers and 105 children settled in Bourj Hammoud and the surrounding areas northeast of Beirut.
- Provided educational support to 970 children as follows:
- 486 school kits to 486 children including school uniforms, sports suits, shoes, stationery and books.
- 484 Syrian and Lebanese children with summer school and tutorial/remedial classes to strengthen their learning capacities to better integrate in Lebanese schools and follow the Lebanese academic curriculum